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A Lifetime in Animation: The Glamorous Dr. William Moritz

In Animation World Magazine's look at independent animators, Cindy Keefer profiles Dr. William Moritz, an academician who enthusiastically studies and teaches about these producers.

He gave a lot to culture without asking anything, just for free, just because it was worth it.

Giannalberto Bendazzi

John Canemaker and Giannalberto Bendazzi both cite William Mortiz as an important film historian and writer. All photos courtesy of William Moritz, unless otherwise noted.

John Canemaker and Giannalberto Bendazzi both cite William Mortiz as an important film historian and writer. All photos courtesy of William Moritz, unless otherwise noted.

Film historian, professor and author Dr. William Moritz has spent his lifetime in animation. Although his significant contributions are not easily summarized, as he would say, the external facts are simple enough.

Moritz is a world-renowned expert on animation, experimental film and visual music, and has authored more than100 articles, chapters and program notes. His upcoming definitive biography of Oskar Fischinger is the culmination of more than 30 years work with the Fischinger Estate. Moritz has curated dozens of film shows, preserved historical animation and amassed an impressive research collection, as well as lectured at film festivals, conferences and institutions worldwide. Hes taught film and animation for almost 30 years, and is teaching at CalArts. He was past president of the Society for Animation Studies, and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to visual music by the Royal Academy of the Netherlands in 1993.

"Bill Moritz is one of our greatest film historians and writers. His dedication to preserving the work and documenting the lives of film artists such as Oskar Fischinger, James Whitney, Berthold Bartosch, Hans Fischerkoesen, among others is an inspiration to his colleagues. His clear, compassionate, factually-accurate writing has an added twinkle of sly humor that always make his essays a delight to read." (John Canemaker, 2003).


Bill Moritz was born in 1941, and raised in desert towns of California and Arizona. His father Edward was well-read, fluent in several languages, loved opera, and had been a pianist in Germany. Edward had traveled throughout Europe, emigrating from Germany to Canada in 1929, then to the U.S. several years later. Bill listened to radio broadcasts of opera as a child, while studying his fathers librettos in several languages. Bill and his father took the train to Los Angeles or Phoenix to see operas (Edward worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, so they could take the train for free). Bill also went to the movies often with his older brother. He remembers,

I saw a lot of animation in movie theatres, while growing up (there was no television then), like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Porky Pig, Woody Woodpecker cartoons, character animation made by studios. This was a vital part of everyday life. The big transformation for me was seeing interesting animation the UPA cartoons in particular were really a completely different change. I saw things that were actually art, and not just cartoons.

In 1958, as a student at USCs School of Cinema, Bill recalls, I saw my first Fischinger film, and it popped all my buttons!

Moritz earned his Ph.D. at USC in Comparative Literature, with a minor in Cinema. He began teaching at Occidental College in 1965, and continued teaching film and humanities at institutions including Otis Art Institute, Pitzer College, American University Center (Calcutta, India), UCLA, Art Center College of Design, and CalArts. He also worked at the Creative Film Society distributing animation, and at radio station KPFK as a film and music critic. He promoted experimental film and animation through venues like Los Angeles Filmmakers Cooperative, Theatre Vanguard and Los Angeles Film Oasis; and was a member of the Visual Music Alliance in the '80s. In his spare time, he toured giving poetry readings. Two of his plays were produced, and his numerous poems were published.

His own 34 films screened in one person shows at the Museums of Modern Art in Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Tokyo, and also at Pacific Film Archive, Anthology Film Archives, LA Institute of Contemporary Art, Academy of Fine Arts (The Hague), and San Francisco Art Institute. His most recent film, All My Lost Lovers, was made with an AFI Independent Filmmakers Grant.

In the 1970s, Moritz developed his theory on visual music. Photo © Harry Frazier.

In the 1970s, Moritz developed his theory on visual music. Photo © Harry Frazier.

Act I

Moritz began writing about animation in 1969. Also, in 1969, he began working with Oskars widow Elfriede to identify, organize, and make safety negatives from Oskars materials. Their decades of work are detailed in his soon to be published Fischinger biography. Moritzs first major critical biographical work on Fischinger was published in Film Culture in 1974. This decade also began his prolific writing on visual music.

Part of his traveling presentation, Towards a Visual Music, was published in Cantrills Filmnotes in 1985, and this thorough history of visual music remains unsurpassed. The development of the tradition of color organs is traced in this presentation, culminating in its influence on contemporary abstract animation. Simplified, Moritzs visual music theories (expressed in numerous essays) encompass the desire to create a moving abstract image as fluid and harmonic as auditory music, while incorporating Pythagoras and Aristotles ideas of the correspondence between the musical tone scale and the rainbow spectrum scale, also defined as music of the spheres.

A few of Moritz published articles include: Visual Music and Film-as-an-Art in California Before 1950, United Productions of America, Reminiscing 30 Years Later, The Surrealistic World of Max Fleischer, Some Observations on Non-Objective and Non-Linear Animation, Resistance and Subversion in Animated Films of the Nazi Era: The Case of Hans Fischerkoesen, Jules Engel, Post-Modernist and Abstract Film and Color Music. For the Absolut Panushka website in the 1990s he authored 200 pages of The History of Experimental Animation. Hes published other pieces on Fischinger, Fleischer, Jordan Belson, the Whitneys, Bruce Conner, Harry Smith, Hy Hirsh, Mary Ellen Bute, Pat ONeill, Stan Vanderbeek and other artists. His bibliography of published work is eight pages long.

Act II

Moritz has done preservation work on many animated films, beginning with Fischinger, and continuing with films by Walther Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Hy Hirsh, Harry Smith and Sky David, among others. Recently he consulted with the Academy Film Archive on its restoration of the Fischinger films from the original nitrates. He curated many of these new prints for the KINETICA 2 Fischinger Centennial traveling exhibition organized by The iotaCenter.

Hes curated many other film shows starting from the 1970s, and most recently Iotas KINETICA 4 program, the latest of its traveling film exhibitions (see Some of his notable programs include his 3D show, and a variety of visual music shows presented worldwide.

Throughout his career, Moritz amassed an impressive research collection including hundreds of books, journals, program notes, articles, photographs, films and videotapes.

In 1987, Moritz began teaching at CalArts where his courses today include History of Experimental Animation, History of Animation and History of Experimental Film. At USC, hes an adjunct professor, co-teaching The History of Animation with professor Christine Panushka.

For this article, Bill compiled his Top 10 Desert Island Animated Films. In his inimitable style, he cannot be constrained to just 10.

Oskar Fischinger Study No. 6 and Motion Painting No. 1

Jordan Belson Chakra and Light

James Whitney Yantra and Lapis

Anthony Gross Joie de Vivre and Foxhunt

Hans Fischerkoesen Weatherbeaten Melody and The Snowman

Paul Grimault Little Soldier and King and Mr. Bird

Barry Purves Screenplay

Lejf Marcussen Public Opinion and Tonespor

Frédéric Back Crac!

Yuri Norstein Tale of Tales

Priit Pärn - Picnic

Jules Engel - Gerald McBoing-Boing, Wet Paint, Coaraze, Villa Rospigliosi

Bill and Oskars widow Elfriede share a light moment. Courtesy of The Fischinger Archive.

"And I have decided to move to that desert island and just watch these films forever! he exclaims. Other films hed take, which didnt make the "official" list, include Bartoschs LIdee; Night on Bald Mountain (Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker), Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Looking for Mother (Te Wei and Qian Jajun), Robert Darrolls films and several Betty Boop cartoons. And if theres room, the complete works of several of the above, including Fischinger on film or DVD please.


Beyond his many accomplishments, the internal facts of his life are another matter. His spiritual interests include Buddhism, and James Whitney's and Jordan Belsons beliefs have influenced him. Hes well-read, fluent in French, German, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Czech and Italian, with some Russian. Hes an avid viewer of The History Channel, and still attends opera. And he continues working with the Fischinger legacy today.

First, I want to stress that Bill is a wonderful human being: honest, generous, true to his friends. Second, he's an extremely intelligent, cultivated and open-minded film critic and historian. Third, he gave a lot to culture without asking anything, just for free, just because it was worth it. Bill taught me all I know about some great filmmakers. Not only Oskar Fischinger (which is obvious) but also James Whitney (an underestimated genius), John Whitney, Hy Hirsh, Pat O'Neill. And he also taught me a lot about UPA.